Nairobi in a Song A Boy, His Father, and Old Tunes

‘To Kenyans, 2023 feels like the year the country dies. But within this Rhumba and Jazz establishment in Nairobi’s Tao, it could as well be 1970,’ Ogwa writes. ‘Perched behind a corner table with two cold bottles of beer sweating before me, I pass a quintessential moment, watching folks of all ages waltz elegantly to Cabo Verde Barefoot Diva, Cesária Évora’s “Partida”… For me, old music is not just entertainment, it’s a compass with which I always find my way back to me.’

It’s 2023. Nairobi’s air is acrid as ever and the government has invented yet another tax. The shilling is having an unprecedented stoop against the dollar. National IDs now cost money as if being a citizen of this country is such a hot sell. Meanwhile, passports are unaffordable because there’s no escaping hell, and thousands are losing their jobs as corporates flee the land of Hakuna Matata. A week earlier, Kenya’s leading boy band, Sauti Sol, in a one-last-time performance, took a final walk on the stage they’ve built for 20 years. They bowed, raised the curtains, and turned off the lights; the end of an era. To their fans, 2023 feels like the year music dies. To Kenyans, 2023 feels like the year the country dies. 

But within this Rhumba and Jazz establishment in Nairobi’s Tao, it could as well be 1970.  Perched behind a corner table with two cold bottles of beer sweating before me, I pass a quintessential moment, watching folks of all ages waltz elegantly to Cabo Verde Barefoot Diva, Cesária Évora’s ‘Partida’. If there’s any care in the world, it does not exist within these walls. There is the sunset couple, dancing to the song’s beat, and their hearts. The missus cocks her head and smiles proudly after a number of elegant waltzes—a befitting tribute to Évora who disdained false humility, often citing that she achieved success simply because she is an excellent singer—the very best.  


For a moment, I permit myself to imagine they are dancing just for me. 

This couple doesn’t have to maintain eye contact as they dance. They know nothing in this world better than each other, and in this moment, that is enough. This is what you have when you’ve had it all. These are the golden years they’ve spent their whole lives working for, and they are lucky to be here now, to live these moments together. With their matching grey hair, spots on their hands, and hints of time at the corner of their eyes, they look like living poetry. Theirs is a life with context: they were born, grew up, met, fell in love, had children, made a family, and grew old together. I envy the assurance in their steps and feel a knot in my throat.  

Évora’s sultry contralto fills the room, transporting us to another place and time; suddenly we’re strolling the picturesque streets of the Cape Verdean city of Mindelo, or basking on the white Sandy beaches of Boa Vista. Of course, most people here do not understand a word of the Cape Verdean Creole Évora sings in, but does it matter? Does language really matter when it comes to great art? I think about Ngũgĩ’s language question. Does language define art? Does it matter what language Anton Chekov’s The Seagull is written in? Does the Acholi language of Okot p’Bitek’s poem Wer Pa Lawino (Song of Lawino) define the masterpiece? Language is a tool, a medium. I think language defines art just as much as a pen defines a story or a chisel defines Michelangelo’s David. For us, the melody of Nha cretcheu, djâm s’ tá ta parti / Oi partida sô bô podia séparacommunicates much more than any language ever could. It’s a memory. It’s a feeling. It’s a moment. 

There’s the young couple, probably only a few years older than me. Could be late 20s, could be early 30s. The lady, who appears sophisticated, stands at five-foot-eight, with short natural hair, built like a goddess with eyes like a story. The guy on the other hand is, well, I don’t understand why she’s with him. I mean… You know what I mean. Maybe he’s just sloshed, I reckon. Anyway, she’s leading the dance, back straight like an African royal, showing off her long shapely legs. For a moment, I find myself willing the dude to trip, fall, and break his neck. He doesn’t. Turns out that what he lacks in other places, he makes up for in dancing. Lucky bastard.  

This is not just music, this is a connection, this is nostalgia, this is memories of moments once lived, and the hope they could be lived again.  

Well, I’m just here to pass the time and feel anything other than what I’m feeling now which is something ranging from dejection to exasperation. Earlier in the day, I had met with a potential client for a gig only for the son of a gun to look me straight in the eye and insist on ‘exposure’ as the only form of payment he could offer since the shilling was now worthless anyway. So, I ordered a hot plate of chicken on his bill, ate, and left. Here, with this music, and these beautiful strangers, I get to shut the world and her demons away and just be. 

Barbara Kanam’s Cherie Mupenzi, a rendition of Jean-Bosco Mwenda wa Bayeke songs comes on. Naenda pale kwetu njia ya Lingasi / Naenda pale kwetu njia ya Buluo / Si uende umwambiye baba Bosco wa Bayeke / Wende umbwambiye ende akalale kwabo… Kanam belts out. Everyone who was seated darts for the dance floor. I don’t because, one, I’m here alone and this is a song you should never dance to while holding air. Two, I’m one of those people with absolutely no sense of rhythm who can’t dance. Now if I was sipping something stronger than beer, then perhaps my ancestors who danced would possess me and it would be a different story, but since my eyes are open like an owl’s, I just sit and watch memories created, as I sink into one of my own—the origin of my musical taste, and the man who made that possible. Ogwa Sr, my old man. 


These are the earliest memories I have of my father: a burning stove, cocoa, boiling milk, the iron sheet roof going ‘waaaah’ with the drizzle, and the music. Always the music. I have no recollection as to why my father would be home, but I remember I grew up a sickly child, and whenever it rained, I did not go to school. This must have been one of those days, so while Min Jii (my mother) was away for work and my siblings were out for school, the house would be left for just the two of us—the oldest male in the family, and the youngest. 

When I awoke, he would holster me on his shoulders, carry me to the living room, and sit me on his favourite seat. Then he would bring the stove to the living room, light it, place a small sufuria (cooking pot), and add some water, and then the milk and the cocoa. Baba would then replace all eight batteries of Thum—the huge radio cassette player—with new ones, load a cassette tape, and sit back and watch the tea boil. 

Thum would belch to life. It was always Maroon Commandos that came first. Uvivu ni adui mkubwa kwa ujenzi wa taifa / kwani ndicho kiini hasa kisababishacho njaa / Ewe ndugu yangu amka kumekucha… Ah, the voice of Abel Kifoto is pristine! The light in my father’s eyes would flicker with every note. Soon, it would just be the sound of music, the rain waaa-ing, the tea boiling, and Baba breathing, his pronounced Adam’s apple going up and down like a mound of Ugali was stuck in his throat. After minutes of silence, he would turn to me and ask, as if he were talking to his peer, ‘Do you know what life is all about, son?’ 


He wouldn’t laugh. 

‘Memories. We are shaped by the totality of the memories we create, do you understand?’ 

I understood that his Adams Apple vibrated when he spoke. My little hand would reach out to touch it, and he would let me.  

‘Music creates the best of memories. This one here reminds me of Wuonwa, your grandfather. You too will remember me one day with music.’ 

He would catch the tea in the nick of time just before it swelled and poured over the sufuria. The tea would be divine, and another cassette would be playing, this time in Lingala. It was Franco’s TP OK Jazz singing something about makambo ezali (these problems) being very big. Baba didn’t sing along. He did not dance. He just rested his feet on the table and listened, only interrupted when Ochieng Kabasele’s dirge Wuora Ogola came on and I began a litany of questions.  

‘Who is that?’ 

‘Ochieng Kabasele—Hadjulas Nyapanji Ochieng Kabasele.’ 

Baba always insisted on the artists’ full names. Like, it was not just Franco, it was Franco Luambo Luanzo Makiadi. Tabu Ley Rochereau was Pascal Emanuel Sinamoyi Tabu Ley Rochereau. Simaro Masiya was La Poete Lutumba Simaro Masiya. M’bilia Bel was Marie-Claire Mboyo Moseka M’bilia Bel. The artists were gods, and you don’t shorten a god’s name. Then I would ask where Ochieng Kabasele was right now, hoping Baba would confirm my long-held suspicions that he was inside the radio. 

‘He’s dead.’ 

I was old enough to understand death. I had earlier seen my dead Grandma buried. And so dead meant buried, which was a little confusing because if Ochieng Kabasele was buried, then how come he was singing on the radio? 

‘That’s a record of him,’ Baba explained.  

I did not envy the person who had to dig up Ochieng Kabasele from his grave to record him singing so Baba and I could listen on the radio. 

We listened to Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Brenda Fassi, Oliver Mtukudzi and Yvone Chakachacka from Southern Africa. Then we listened to Fela Kuti and Ernesto Djedje from the west, and Cesaria Évora over the Atlantic archipelago. Congolese musical maestros weren’t spared, and neither were East African bands; Les Wanyika, Them Mushrooms, Safari Sounds, Remy Ongala’s Super Matimila, Ochieng Kabasele’s Luna Kidi band, Musa Juma’s Limpopo International, and anything else Baba fancied. He loved music so I loved the same music.  

I’m now 25, he is 62 and we both still love the same music. For me, old music is not just entertainment, it’s a compass with which I always find my way back to me. So, it doesn’t matter what life throws at me, it doesn’t matter how hard these streets work to change me into something ugly, I only have to listen to Samba Mapangala’s spring-water voice or Simaro’s excellent compositions and I’m back to me

The views, thoughts, and opinions published in The Republic belong solely to the author and are not necessarily the views of The Republic or its editors. We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected].